There will be no giving up the vision, according to a consensus of the executive boards for Big Sky Economic Development (EDA and EDC). Following two setbacks, one from city hall and another from the state legislature, those who have pushed forward the comprehensive plan on how to develop downtown Billings over the next 30 years, seem undeterred.
Just days after the defeat of legislation which would have helped fund the vision, the issue was discussed at length during the executive boards’ regular monthly meeting.
In a letter to the media and his board members, EDA/EDC Director Steve Arveschoug wrote: “While we were not successful this session, we have absolutely set the stage for the 2021 Session to have an important discussion of economic development tools. . . our current set of tools are now 20 years old, and states all around us are now on their third generation of unique economic development programs and tools that are attracting new investment and job growth to their states.”
Arveschoug said, “I want to get to the heart of the issue. We need to educate and empower our leaders. We need them to be leaders. We need to strengthen them in that role so they can actually be leaders, that maybe means leading counter to what their constituents are saying.”
SB 340, carried by Senator Roger Webb, (R) Billings, would have enabled the creation of “406 Impact Districts”, which would provide state and local subsidies to a private developer whose projects exceed a set amount in private investment. The government subsidy would have been to offset investment in public infrastructure made by the private investor, such as for parking or facilities, such as a city hall. The proposal for Billings, One Big Sky District, included the building of a convention center. The bill died on a tie vote in committee on March 28. (Margie MacDonald, (D) Billings, carried the bill in the House.)
Prior to that, the Billings City Council rejected a request by developer Bob Dunn of Landmark, to guarantee a payback for any continued investment in his proposed project for Billings, which included costs associated with lobbying and promotional materials, should he not be the developer of any projects proposed in the master plan.
Arveschoug advised that they not delay. They have two years until the next state legislature, “that may seem like a long time but that is an illusion.” Arveschoug announced a meeting planned for later in the week with the “Strategy Partners,” to de-brief and gather comments from everyone about how to go forward. The Strategy Partners, those entities in Billings promoting OBSD, include The City of Billings, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Billings Alliance and Tourism Business Improvement District).
The general trend of conversation of the executive committees reflected a consensus that they will continue to push for the passage of SB 340 during the next session of the state legislature in 2021. Their strategy going forward seemed to be that they will make greater efforts to educate the public and gain broader support from throughout the state. It was stated that they want to make sure that the next time they bring a big investor to Billings “they are welcomed with open arms.”
The education, persuasion and endorsement of groups was emphasized – perhaps even agriculture groups. And, to gain the endorsement of those in positions of leadership will be especially important.
Cory Moore, chairman of the EDA board, said, there are a lot of “naysayers out there.” And, other board members lamented that there is a lot of misinformation “out there,” asking “how do we educate?”
After hearing some of the comments, board member Steve Loveless said, “I am hearing caution…I don’t know how much time I would spend educating the naysayers.”
It was also noted that “some people do not want to see the growth.” Ideas that seem “big city” are not what they want for Billings.
“I think we have a great message,” said board member Mike Nelson, expressing some surprise about feedback in Helena. “Bozeman didn’t understand why we wanted people from out-of-state.”
It was noted that, despite all their efforts to re-brand the plan, there are many people who still believe that the vision is about the initial one-building concept that was proposed earlier by another group of investors. The second plan — the direction of Landmark — became a broader, three faceted development, that would encompass all of downtown from 1st Avenue North to MSU-Billings. “We should have completely changed the name,” it was stated.
“We learned a lot over the last two to three years, what is the best approach for 2021?” asked Cory Moore.
Mike Nelson said, “We need a picture they can’t argue against.”
Nelson said that they need to recognize the ground they have gained. “We have at least 600 folks” behind this, “we need to maintain their energy.”
Board member Eric Simonsen recognized one of the issues that stands in the way of convincing some people — the competition a subsidized downtown convention center poses to an already taxpayer subsidized publically –owned venue, Metra Park. Metra Park officials have projected that the facility could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to a competing facility. “If you could fix Metra Park financially, you wouldn’t have this argument,” he said.
Even though SB 340 failed to pass the Senate, Arveschoug said, “…it was exactly the right thing for Montana to consider – a new economic development tool that puts the private-sector investment first.”